Wendell Carter Jr. deserves a raise. So does Zach LaVine.
And Lauri Markkanen, who is playing through a sprained left ankle, may deserve a day off.
That’s the Bulls’ sixth straight loss in a nutshell, this one a 116-105 defeat to a Pacers team without Victor Oladipo, Malcolm Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis.
Despite LaVine’s 43 points, the Bulls are a season-worst 13 games under .500 and are both five games out of the playoffs and five games above the league’s worst record (and best odds at winning the draft lottery).
The Bulls now have played two full games since losing Carter for four-to-six weeks with a sprained right ankle. They allowed 44 third-quarter points on Wednesday in New Orleans and watched the Pacers shoot 57.1 percent while posting a ridiculous 70-36 edge in points in the paint.
“Myles Turner played a great game,” LaVine said of Turner's 27 points and 14 rebounds. “We switched. He shot over the top of us. We were in our blitz. He rolled. We missed assignments on defense that gave him easy buckets. You can’t give them easy buckets. Our margin of error isn’t that big.”
Apparently, LaVine didn’t limit his on-target marksmanship for his on-court performance.
No, the Bulls’ margin of error isn’t that big, which is why the Bulls must consider limiting their aggressive, blitzing defense now that their best defender is beginning an extended absence. Daniel Gafford said he’s ready to imitate Carter because he played a similar style at Arkansas. But he’s a rookie.
Coach Jim Boylen said he wouldn’t change his approach — but then ended up switching more pick-and-rolls in the fourth. All that led to was guards and wings attacking bigger defenders — most often Markkanen — at the rim.
“We were concerned about that,” Boylen admitted. “They did that to us in Indiana earlier in the year when Brogdon was playing. And I thought the younger Holiday did a good job of that.”
That would be former Bull Justin’s younger brother Aaron, who finished with 19 points and eight assists.
“We’re going to have to adjust a little bit,” LaVine said of the defense. “We’ve done such a good job in it with the No. 1 pick-and-roll defense. I don’t even think teams are playing as much pick-and-roll. They’re advancing the ball and hitting the roller or they’re skipping it and playing 2-on-1 on the backside. We’ve done such a good job in it. We have to continue to play it. I think if that’s our scheme and that’s what they tell us to do, that’s what we gotta do.”
The Bulls’ defensive scheme is good for forcing turnovers but bad for disciplined teams who get multiple corner 3-point attempts or shots at the rim because of it. That was the case even with Carter playing.
LaVine looked inward.
“We give up points in the paint in general,” he said. “It’s going to hurt having Wendell out. But it’s been a problem of ours since the get-go. We give up easy baskets. A lot of that is on us missing assignments. We gotta do better.”
LaVine bolstered his All-Star chances with a sublime offensive performance. He sank eight 3-pointers. At one point, he scored 20 straight points for the Bulls, even though he didn’t know that until afterward.
Seemingly every game now, particularly with Markkanen hobbled, LaVine is answering whether he’s tired from carrying such a large burden offensively.
“It’s my job man,” he said. “I recognize when we’re down, we need a scoring outburst. I’m trying to help us win and play the right way.”
Along those lines, LaVine missed a crucial boxout on T.J. Warren with 1 minute, 42 seconds left and the Bulls down six. Warren’s putback pushed the Pacers’ lead back to eight.
“I got caught in between the slasher and he was on the backside. Once the shot went up, I stood there. I didn’t know he was going to crash. I messed it up and it was a big play,” LaVine said. “I’m trying to do my best. I’m going to make some mistakes. But I’m going to try to make up for them too.”
Added Boylen: “He understands his ability to score and play at an elite level is going to be defined by winning too. He gets that. We’ll look at those plays and coach our way through with him.”
Markkanen, as is his nature, downplayed his ankle. But it’s swollen and discolored and he only attempted three shots in the first half before finishing with nine attempts and 11 points.
“I’m not thinking about it during the game. I’m sure some movements are not as explosive as normal,” he said. “I have a choice. I want to play and help this team. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
Both Boylen and LaVine praised Markkanen for exhibiting toughness. LaVine called it “selfless.”
“I’m proud of Lauri,” Boylen said. “He’s doing the best he can. He’s fighting through. I think he has matured. If he can give you anything, he’ll play. And I think that’s great growth for him. It’s part of what we’re building here. You do anything you can to help the team. If you can help it, even if you’re hurting, you still try. He’s doing that. He hasn’t made one excuse. He hasn’t pouted. He hasn’t asked to come out. He has played through a pretty tough sprain.”
And the Bulls are playing through a pretty tough stretch.
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